Like most northern colleges (with the exception of a handful including Amherst, Bowdoin, Dartmouth, and Oberlin), Columbia admitted no black students before the Civil War. How many tried to enter remains unknown. James McCune Smith, a product of the African Free School, applied in 1831 and was rejected, he and other abolitionists claimed, “on account of his complexion.” Smith went on to earn a medical degree from the University of Glasgow. He returned to the United States to practice as a physician and became a leading figure in the abolitionist movement. Columbia’s whites-only character did not derive from a desire to attract students from the South. Unlike Harvard, Yale, and especially Princeton, with their large southern contingents, Columbia had fewer than a dozen southern undergraduates during the entire period from 1790 to 1860. Because it provided no accommodations or meals for students, the college attracted almost exclusively students from New York City. Geographical diversity meant an undergraduate from Long Island or New Jersey[i].
Between the late 1820s and the 1840s, however, the College of Physicians and Surgeons, an independent institution founded in 1807, which absorbed Columbia’s tiny medical department seven years later and which in turn was absorbed into Columbia in 1860, allowed three black students to attend lectures and laboratory classes in preparation for receiving medical degrees. This was not the result of a sudden upsurge of racial egalitarianism. Many of the founders of P and S were slaveowners and members of the faculty contributed to the era’s scientific racism. While still an undergraduate at Columbia, John Wakefield Francis, who went on to become a P and S professor and trustee, wrote a paper “On the Bodily and Mental Inferiority of the Negro,” which he presented to a medical society that included faculty members of Columbia and P and S. Francis explored various explanations for what he called blacks’ “manifest inferiority,” but his clinching argument rested on his contention that “there never has appeared among the negro a single poet, a single mathematician, in a word a single character who can claim preeminence by the power of the mind.” Several faculty of Columbia’s medical school testified in 1808 in the case of Alexander Whistelo, which revolved around a paternity suit but addressed the issue of innate racial characteristics.[ii]
The president of P and S from 1831 to 1843 was John Augustine Smith, a member of a prominent Virginia family, and a faculty member from 1808 to 1820. In his “Course of Anatomical Instruction” during his term on the faculty, Smith sought to demonstrate the superiority of “the European” over other races, including the Mongol, Malay, and Ethiopian, from an examination of their “anatomical structure,” including “facial angle” and “capacity of the cranium.” Years later, in 1843, Smith delivered a public lecture in New York City on the “different races of men.” Smith concluded that the “Caucasian… might justly be said to stand at the head of all the races of the earth,” while blacks’ “mental powers are upon an inferior scale.” In measurements such as “facial angle,” the “Ethiopian race” was far closer to the orang outan than Caucasians. Smith added that “this can never justify any people in keeping them in slavery.” Nonetheless, Smith was convinced that if freed and allowed to remain in the United States, blacks were “sure to be exterminated,” and he became an avid proponent of colonization.[iii]
On the eve of the Civil War, Dr. John C. Dalton, a P and S professor from 1855 to 1869 and later the institution’s president, published a treatise in which he concluded that “the size of the cerebrum in different races” corresponded to “their grade of intelligence.” The smallest cerebrum was found among “the savage negro and Indian tribes,” the largest in “the enlightened European races.” A prominent P and S graduate, Joseph LeConte, who grew up on a slave plantation in Georgia, received his degree in 1845 and was a professor at the University of South Carolina during and immediately after the Civil War. He was so incensed by the admission of black students as part of Radical Reconstruction that he resigned and moved as far away as he could while still remaining in the country – taking up a professorship at Berkeley. Like other medical scientists of the era, LeConte’s writings, replete with discussion of selective breeding, inheritance of racial characteristics, and the dangers of racial mixing, gave a scientific veneer to racism.[iv]
The admission of black students to P and S arose from the American Colonization Society’s desire to send black physicians to Liberia. White doctors who had made the journey had perished from tropical diseases. Three aspiring black physicians – John Brown, Washington Davis, and David McDonogh–were allowed to study at P and S, their fees and expenses paid by the Colonization Society. They were admitted on condition that they emigrated upon receiving their medical degrees. Things did not work out exactly as planned. At the conclusion of their studies, two of the students, Brown and McDonogh, decided not to leave for Liberia, whereupon President Smith withheld their degrees. Brown, the first professionally trained black physician in the city, made his living as a teacher and public lecturer and died in 1840. McDonogh, the son of a colonizationist slaveowner in Louisiana, embarked on a long career practicing medicine at the New York Ear and Eye Infirmary, where he appears to have been accepted by the other physicians. Davis, the son of black Americans who had emigrated to Liberia in the 1820s, had been brought back to the United States for education by an agent of the ACS. In 1835 he addressed a pro-colonization meeting in Philadelphia. He completed his studies at P and S and practiced medicine in Liberia from 1835 until his death in 1853.[v]
The presence of these black students does not alter the fact that P and S maintained a whites-only admission policy. This became a matter of public controversy in 1850 when James Parker Barnett was summarily expelled. Barnett’s father, also named James, ran a metal-working business in the city. The younger Barnett, born in 1830, was educated at a private academy, then at the University of the City of New York (now NYU), where he graduated fifth in his class. He entered P and S in 1848 as part of a class of 230 students, the large majority of whom, unlike him, had not completed college. Barnett attended two of the three required years of lectures. But on October 1, 1850, shortly after the start of his third year, he was summed before a group of faculty members. A “southern gentleman” at the College (P and S, unlike Columbia College, had many southern students) had complained that Barnett was “colored.” Asked about his race, the light-skinned Barnett replied, “I must confess that my mother is not of the Anglo Saxon race, but of Creole descent… My father is neither of the Anglo-Saxon race.” (Later, Barnett would describe his father as a “French Creole gentleman” and his mother as a “French Creole lady.”) The faculty group informed Barnett that he could not continue at the school. “They said they… were mere servants of the trustees,” Barnett reported. “That they had a rule binding upon them not to admit colored students, that they had repeatedly refused former applications.” “Now, Mr. Barnett,” declared Professor of Obstetrics Chandler R. Gilman, “do not come here again, where you are not wanted.”
Barnett and his father did not go away quietly. When the trustees appointed a faculty committee to look into the matter, the senior Barnett sent them an impassioned plea. “I am a citizen of this great state of New York,” he wrote, “and annually pay a tax of $125.00 on my real estate, for the support of the government and education of the youth of the state… I cannot be willing to believe that any citizen can thus be deprived of his rights.” But on October 30, 1850, a special meeting of trustees and faculty voted to uphold Barnett’s expulsion. They claimed that Barnett had intentionally misled the school about his race. His sister had married the black abolitionist Dr. James McCune Smith. Smith knew that in 1846, a black student had applied for admission to P and S and been rejected, because, according to Frederick Douglass’ Newspaper, “of the anticipated opposition of students from slave states. He had inquired whether a black applicant could be admitted, and been told he could not, so Barnett did not mention his race when he applied.
Barnett’s father next brought the situation to the attention of the indefatigable John Jay II. Jay filed a petition in the Supreme Court of New York for a writ of mandamus, to compel P and S to readmit Barnett. The petition dealt with the injury to his reputation Barnett had suffered by expulsion, not racial discrimination per se (partly because this was not illegal in New York State and partly because Barnett, according to a report in an abolitionist newspaper, “would pass anywhere for white.”) In March 1851, Justice John W. Edmonds, a strongly antislavery jurist, issued the writ. Eighteen months then elapsed before the trustees proposed that Barnett be awarded an honorary degree, but the senior Barnett rejected this option. The P and S trustees then decided to fight the writ in court. Their lawyer contended that having a “person of colour” as a student would injure the college because other students would withdraw. In April 1853, the case came before Justice James J. Roosevelt of the Superior Court, Columbia Class of 1815 and a slaveowner in his youth. Roosevelt ruled the original writ invalid. Barnett went on to receive a medical degree from Dartmouth. He was serving as a physician at the Colored Orphan Asylum during the New York City draft riots of 1863 and helped evacuate the children as the building burned.[vi]
[i]. Benjamin Quarles, Black Abolitionists (New York, 1969), 112-14; Colored American, June 9, 1838; Elevator, December 22, 1865; John S. Ezell, “A Southern Education for Southrons,” Journal of Southern History, 18 (August 1951), 310. The
Matriculation Book, Office of the Registrar Records, Box 63, Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Columbia University, lists the names and home residences for each class of Columbia students.
[ii]. John B. Langstaff, Doctor Bard of Hyde Park (New York, 1942), 176; Christine C. Robbins, David Hosack: Citizen of New York (Philadelphia, 1964), 73; “A Dissertation on the Bodily and Mental Inferiority of the Negro,” John Wakefield Francis Papers, New York Public Library; Michaela Greer, “On Trial: Racialized Science, Politics, and the University in the 1808 Whistelo Trial,” Seminar Paper, Columbia and Slavery, Spring 2016.
[iii]. Elena Sulakshana, “Teaching Race and Medicine at Columbia,” Seminar Paper, Columbia and Slavery, Spring 2016; Charles Lyell, Lectures on Geology Delivered at the Broadway Tabernacle (New York, 1843), 53-54 [this pamphlet includes a newspaper report of “a lecture on the different races of men” delivered by J. Augustine Smith]
[iv]. John C. Dalton, Jr., A Treatise on Human Physiology (Philadelphia, 1859), 364; Lester D. Stephens, Joseph LeConte: Gentle Prophet of Evolution (Baton Rouge, 1982), 103-05, 234-40; William D. Armes, ed., The Autobiography of Joseph LeConte (New York, 1903), 230-38.
[v]. Russell W. Irvine, The African American Quest for Institutions of Higher Education Before the Civil War (Lewiston, 2010), 69-101; Russell W. Irvine, “Pride and Prejudice,” Journal of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, 20 (Winter 2000), 13-16; Schutz, “‘Africa’s Glory,’” 8-13; African Repository, 11 (August 1835), 249; Colored American, March 28, 1840.
[vi]. Robert A.Vietrogoski, “The Case of Mr. J. P. Barnett (Col. Student): An Unusual Instance of Racial Discrimination in 19th-Century Medical Education,” unpub. paper, 2011; Odessky, “John Jay,” 20-25; James Parker Barnett to John Jay II, November 19, 1850, Jay Family Papers, Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Columbia University; Frederick Douglass’ Paper, July 28, 1852, July 15, 1853; National Anti-Slavery Standard, April 28, 1853.